Musical Authorship--or What If They Didn't Write the Notes?

What does it mean to compose a piece of music? Does it mean that that composer in question personally wrote—and orchestrated—every bar? Or what about a melody he/she composed that is then arranged by others? If a composer leaves a work in fragmentary form, and a second party comes in and completes it, even composing new music, is that piece still by Composer A—or Composer B? Is that really a collaboration, or a completion? In short, what truly constitutes authorship in music? This is a difficult question, particularly in the world of classical music, when works are often completed by students and colleagues, or in the world of film music, where orchestrations are farmed out to studio hands, so the composer can dash off multiple scores at once. While we like the idea of a single composer, often this is hardly the case, and a single piece of music might go through multiple hands over decades and centuries. Consider a piece that survives 300 years and is then “edited” by a musicologist: is that an act of co-composition, particularly if the piece is tailored to appeal to modern audiences? In the same way, what about Mozart;s re-orchestration of Handel’s Messiah for an 18th century audience? Is that a new opus by Mozart? Or when Mahler did the same for Schumann’s symphonies? Similarly, if you quote parts of a piece in your own work—say, Strauss’ Metamorphosen, which quotes  Beethoven’s Eroica—does Beethoven get credit (even if he wouldn’t want it)?

I ask these questions because music is a much trickier fish than writing. In writing, completing one writer’s work rarely pays off. Many people have had a go at completing the unfinished novels of Austen, The Watsons and Sandition. But they steadfastly refuse to sell—if anything, people prefer the drafts of what might-have-been. It would be laughable to complete a torso of Shakespeare (if one even existed), much less a few chapters of Tolstoy. So why does it work in music? For some reason, style is easier to counterfeit in music so that we scarcely miss a beat when one composer drops his quill (or pen, in later years) and another picks it up. True, inspiration may be lacking, to say nothing of genius, but we can still hear it with pleasure—maybe even delight. I want to examine five works which have entered the mainstream classical canon but which are not, strictly, by the composers in question. Why do we accept these works? And who really wrote them? These are questions not easily answered...

#1: Albinoni, Adagio in G Minor: this is the mystery of all mysteries; Albioni, an aristocratic composer of the early 18th century, dashed off charming oboe concertos and church sonatas in the style of Vivaldi. Nothing he wrote could comfortably be called a hit until, in 1958, this single-movement work appeared which took the world by storm. Granted, it sounds nothing like Albinoni, nor anything else of the Baroque period: despite the dirge-like basso continuo played by the organ, the piece opens with a yearning, Italianate melody that wandered in out of a verismo opera. As the piece continues, the melody become more and more impassioned, finally pulling out all the stops on Romantic pathos. How could Albinoni write with such bald emotion when everything else he wrote was so relatively tame and civilized?

Okay, so he didn’t exactly write it: the Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, claimed that he found a scrap of a manuscript in the Saxon State Library (Dresden) which had little more than a bass line and the beginnings of a melody. Sensing the potential in this sketch, he wove it until pure gold, creating a bona fide classical ‘hit,’ which has featured in numerous films and even pop songs. But is it Albinoni? Should we give him credit for the piece, or call it a Giazotto original? If we’re being honest, I think Giazotto realized that nothing he composed would ever be played twice, particularly in an age where serious music was dominated by twelve-tone technique and other abstractions. However, rediscovered music from the past is always welcome, much as Fritz Kriesler proved when he similarly ‘found’ lost concertos from Vivaldi...later revealed to be his own compositions. So if this isn’t Albinoni, should we still play it as a piece of classic Baroque music? Whatever it is—and whoever composed it—it remains a fine piece, beautiful and haunting in its own right. It’s just not Albinoni. It should be called Adagio in the Old Style, or something similar. And call it by Giazotto!

#2: Mussorgsky, Night on Bald Mountain: Poor Mussorgsky is a repeat-offender on this list, largely because he left his manuscripts incomplete or in a state which his colleagues found unacceptable. His major works, such as the opera Boris Godunov survived in multiple versions, none of them designed to please the major opera houses of the day. Enter his old friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who felt himself honor bound to rescue works by his colleagues that had fallen into neglect. Rimsky-Korsakov made a performance version of Godunov that became a major hit in Russia, and then set about rescuing all his incomplete, fragmentary operas and orchestral works, notably a fascinating piece from the aborted opera Mlada called “A Night on Bald Mountain.” Rimsky-Korsakov, who wrote a textbook on orchestration, is a incontestable 19th century master in this field; just listen to his Schehehrazade or Capriccio Espagnol and you’ll get the picture. So when he heard Mussorgsky’s opus, he was appalled by its crude orchestration and ham-fisted transitions. Instead, he composed his own version, re-orchestrating it to become an orchestral tour de force, as well as recomposing bits and pieces, rearranging this and that, and adding an entirely new ending, depicting the sunrise and the gentle restoration of calm and order. The new piece is astonishingly good, becoming a staple of the canon from the moment of its completion. Of course, it’s not Mussorgsky: that is, the themes are his, and the general shape of the piece, but it mostly sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov. A quick listen of the original will confirm this, and purists are appalled by his liberally Rimsky-Korsakov ‘improved’ the original. For my money, I still prefer the revision, as Mussorgsky’s orchestration, however powerful, doesn’t bear repeated hearings. So I might call this a co-composition, with both artists listed as the “composer.”

#3: Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition: Okay, this piece is all Mussorgsky. All the notes, all the music. Except that every bit of the orchestration is by Maurice Ravel. Ravel was commissioned to orchestrate a little-known piano suite by Mussorgsky by the famous Russian conductor Serge Koussevitsky, and Ravel—a big fan of the Russians in general—produced this masterpiece of masterpieces. In adapting it, he merely cut out a few of the ‘promenade’ passages that introduce each piece, but the essential music remains. However, what happens when a major composer adapts the work of another major composer? Can Ravel suppress his unique imprint as a composer even in a simple (or not so simple) arrangement? I should probably mention that Ravel, like Rimsky-Korsakov, excelled in orchestration. While Pictures at an Exhibition became a run-away hit and now boasts dozens of recordings, to say nothing of thousands of performances worldwide, I still consider it more a piece by Ravel than Mussorgsky. The music shimmers with Ravel’s unmistakable accent, sounding more like the suave Frenchman’s impression of Russian music. Some pieces sound deeply Russian, like the famous second movement, “The Old Castle,” while others, such as the “Great Gate of Kiev” might have been composed by Ravel himself, in La Valse mode. There’s something unfortunate that all of Mussorgsky’s greatest hits are actually by other composers. On that note, even Dimitri Shostakovich made his own version of Boris and orchestrated Mussorgsky’s famous song cycle, Songs and Dances of Death. For some reason, no one could resist “improving” Mussorgksy’s genius.

#4: Borodin, Prince Igor and The Polovitsian Dances, etc.: Borodin was a full-time chemistry professor, splitting his free time (what little of it remained) between music and the fledgling women’s right movement in 19th c. Russia. Not surprisingly, he wrote relatively little and much of this was left incomplete or in need of substantial revision. Enter Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov! Rimsky-Korsakov edited and tied up the orchestration of his powerful Symphony No.2, and personally set about arranging his massive, incomplete opera, Prince Igor, into some sort of performing shape. Along the way, he crafted the orchestra gem we know as the Polovitsian Dances, which are full of sinuous ‘Oriental’ melodies and glittering orchestration. Of course, these were either completely or partially orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, and parts may have been newly composed by him as well. This is even more true for the Prince Igor Overture, which may have not existed at all. Alexander Glazunov, a prize student of Rimsky-Korsakov, who succeeded him as director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, took this piece under his wing. According to the memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich, Glazunov once admitted, while drunk, that no such Overture existed so he just wrote it from scratch, based on themes from the opera and in Borodin’s style. This is a plausible statement, since Glazunov had digested the style of both Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, as his epic Symphony No.2 attests. Glazunov also orchestrated Borodin’s incomplete Symphony No.3, orchestrating both movements and inserting a passage from Prince Igor as the ‘trio’ to the scherzo movement(!). So when listening to Borodin’s orchestral music, consider it a very handsome Frankenstein monster, composed of pieces of his own music (sometimes from very disparate pieces), as well as bits of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov’s imagination.  

#5: Mahler, Symphony No. 10: Mahler was very superstitious, and avoided writing a 9th symphony, fearing it would be his last (since Beethoven only wrote 9 and never made it beyond—nor had anyone else since). To trick fate, he called his vocal ‘ninth’ symphony The Song of the Earth, and removed the word “symphony” altogether. When he lived beyond its premier, he went on to compose his ‘tenth’ symphony, a long, death-plagued work which he confidently called his Ninth. He died not long after, with sketches for the ‘eleventh,’ now his Tenth, well underway. The long, gorgeous (yet doom-laden) first movement had been completed, but everything else was in various stages of disrepair. Most felt that any attempt to complete it would be foolish—if not downright disrespectful. Enter Deryck Cooke, who pioneered a completed version that attempted to lift the ban on the work imposed by Mahler’s widow, Alma Mahler. Once she heard it she reversed her decision and gave him her blessing to continue. He made four official versions of the score over the next 30 years, fine-tuning it and trying to get as close to Mahler as possible, even though some of the latter movements offered only sketchy and sometimes illegible clues. Many other composers and scholars have tried to “correct” his version, and there are now 3 or 4 recordings of these to contend with. However, for the most part, Cooke’s version has become almost canonical, and many respected conductors have performed and recorded the Tenth—even if Mahler didn’t exactly compose it. The verdict is out on this piece, even though even the Berlin Philharmonic, the most canonical of orchestras, has performed it numerous times as if to give its ‘blessing.’

Other controversial works in the orchestral canon:
·       Elgar, Symphony No.3 (completed/orchestrated by Anthony Payne), a situation much like Mahler--required some guesswork and additions (including borrowing music from other Elgarian compositions). Hmm...
·       Mozart, Requiem (completed first by his pupil Sussmayr, then by a whole host of other composers); granted, most of it is genuine Mozart, but after the “Lacrimosa,” it gets sketchy—and a little less inspired.
·       Tchaikovsky, Suite No.4 “Mozartiana”: a suite or orchestrated and slightly reconfigured Mozart piano pieces. One catch: the third piece, Ave verum corpus, is based not on Mozart’s original choral work but on Liszt’s transcription of it!
·       Respighi, La boutique fantasque, a ballet based on Rossini’s piano pieces, but orchestrated and re-composed by Respighi.
·       Respighi, Ancient Airs and Dances, three suites of Renaissance dance pieces for lute which he transcribed for 20th century orchestra: where does the past end and Respighi begin?
·       Stravinsky, Pulcinella, a ballet based on themes from Pergolesi and others, though very recomposed by Stravinsky.

·       Stravinsky, The Fairy’s Kiss, a ballet based on Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces and some songs, though again, recomposed and arranged by Stravinsky.